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Natural Composting of Human Remains - A First for Washington State

“Natural composting,” also known as “natural organic reduction” and “above ground composting,” is a new alternative to cremation services and traditional burials. This new process is described as a gentle, sustainable, and more environmentally friendly way to honor the dead.

The New Law

ESSB 5001 was signed into law on May 21, 2019 and goes into effect on May 1, 2020. Washington State is the first state in the US. to allow natural composting of human remains as an option to cremation services and traditional burials. Our new law also allows alkaline hydrolysis, also known as “water cremation,” and this process is already legal in 19 other states.

In Washington State the cremation rate is 77%, higher than any other state, and cremation services are chosen in more than half of all deaths nationwide. Washington also has more “green cemeteries”—which encourage a return to nature—than all other states except California and New York.  

What is Natural Organic Reduction?

This new law defines “natural organic reduction” as “the contained, accelerated conversion of human remains to soil.” This process uses large tanks, containers, or similar vessels to hold human remains together with straw, wood chips, and/or other natural materials for a period of time of about four to six weeks. The remains and organic materials, mixed together with warm air, are periodically turned and the composting process eventually results in reduction to a soil material. When the process is complete the family of the deceased has the opportunity to receive the soil material, which is suitable for spreading in a garden, planting a special tree, or scattering in other meaningful locations such as a garden, memorial forest, or other special place.

Research conducted at WSU to evaluate the process has confirmed that it works as described and can transform human remains into soil material. In fact, this method has historically been used in farming communities when livestock remains need to be composted. This process reportedly uses about one-eighth the energy required for cremation services. Thus, the lower environmental impact is considered a strong point.

What is Alkaline Hydrolysis?

Alkaline hydrolysis is also known as “water cremation," “simple aquamation,” or “flameless cremation.” Alkaline hydrolysis is defined in the new law as:

the reduction of human remains to bone fragments and essential elements in a licensed hydrolysis facility using heat, pressure, water, and base chemical agents.

In this process human remains become dissolved in a mixture of heated water and chemicals (such as lye), leaving behind bone fragments and a sterile liquid.

Regulations – Licenses and Permits

Both processes require a license or an endorsement to an existing license under the funeral and cemetery board laws in chapter 68.05 RCW.  Just as memorial ashes from cremation services may be spread or scattered in special places, natural organic reduction remains may also be scattered. State law provides for a permit process, and the different types of remains produced by either natural organic reduction or alkaline hydrolysis are treated the same under this new law. Under RCW 68.05.195, as amended:

Any person . . . who buries or scatters human remains by land, air, or sea or performs any other disposition of human remains outside of a cemetery must have a permit issued in accordance with RCW 68.05.100 and are subject to that section.

Over time, funeral and memorial services have changed and expanded beyond cremation services and traditional funeral burials to offer more choices and to accommodate more environmentally friendly options. Natural organic reduction, alkaline hydrolysis, and green burials are all alternative ways to honor those who have passed away. Environmental considerations support these processes.

Many in Washington State’s funeral and cemetery industries may now consider providing these new and, perhaps simpler and less expensive processes, which are now legal under ESSB 5001. 

Additional Resources

Here are some resources to bookmark moving forward:

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

Photo of Linda Gallagher

About Linda Gallagher

Linda Gallagher joined MRSC in 2017. She previously served as a Senior Deputy Prosecuting Attorney for King County and as an Assistant Attorney General.

Linda’s municipal law experience includes risk management, torts, civil rights, transit, employment, workers compensation, eminent domain, vehicle licensing, law enforcement, corrections, and public health.

She graduated from the University of Washington School of Law.